Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  By CORY McCARTNEY  |  Last updated 8/23/13
With just seven games remaining against teams with records of .500 or better, the consensus has been the Braves had the easiest remaining schedule of any contender. But now the National League East leaders are in the midst of those games vs. winning teams -- which come in consecutive fashion -- and it got off to a rough start as they fell to the Cardinals for the first time this season 6-2. Here are three observations from the Braves' loss. 1. Braves show they're missing Heyward -- but let's not panic You have to wonder how much of a toll the loss of Jason Heyward to a fractured jaw 24 hours before had on this team, but all we can say with any certainty is that they clearly missed his bat in the lineup. Hitting .341.414.580 in the leadoff spot with six doubles, five home runs and 15 RBI, Heyward emerged as the No. 1 guy Atlanta had been looking for through a season that saw it turn, at times, to Jordan Schafer, Andrelton Simmons and B.J. Upton in that spot. On the first night that honor went to Schafer, and he would proceed to be called out on strikes in his first at-bat, then he grounded out in the third, flied out in the fifth, struck out in the seventh and was the final out of the game as he grounded out to Allen Craig. Despite that 0 for 5 night, Schafer may still be the Braves' bet to fill the role until Heyward comes back in 4-6 weeks. The left-hander has a .280 average (23 of 82) in the top spot compared to Simmons at .222 (61 of 275) and .200 (11 of 55) by Upton and remains Atlanta's leader in stolen bases with 13. Plus, Simmons hasn't batted first since July 26 and since moving down in the order he's 24 of 83 (.289) with eight extra base hits. As much as the Braves are going to have to make adjustments until Heyward can come back, with a 14-game lead in the division, they're also in a position to tweak without taking anyone out of roles they're thriving in. But manager Fredi Gonzalez has said he'll fill the role based on the matchup, with the left-handed Schafer stating against righties and the right-handed Simmons vs. lefties, so expect a position that's in flux for the coming weeks. It's just one game and one hitless night that's only magnified because the Heyward injury is so fresh, but not having him atop the order simply shows just how much he's meant to this team since assuming the role. 2. Another injury concern? One day after Heyward's injury, the Braves released another potentially tough bit of news as Brandon Beachy will see Dr. James Andrews to have his surgically repaired elbow examined. Beachy has seen a dip in velocity since coming back from Tommy John surgery, with his fastball going from 91.2 mph in his first game back July 29 -- which is just under Beachy's average of 91.5 -- to 89.8, 89.1 and 89.8 in his last three starts. He was down as low as the mid-80 mph range in the last of his six innings Tuesday against the Mets. It was Andrews who performed the procedure on Beachy's elbow 14 months ago. We just didnt like the way that last inning went in New York," manager Fredi Gonzalez told reporters before Thursday's game. "So he flew down to see Dr. Duralde to get an MRI. And then on Monday hes going to see Dr. Andrews. Who knows better than the guy who did the surgery? I can give you more information after that." The Braves are skipping Beachy's next scheduled start on Sunday, with Mike Minor taking the ball instead. Despite the dip in mph, Beachy (2-1) has been strong in his last four outings with a 2.73 ERA, .198 batting average against and an 18:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. There is speculation Beachy may have inflammation in the elbow, which he dealt with in June, causing the Braves to shut him down for a couple of weeks before he could continue his rehab. But losing him for any amount of time could be a tough blow to a rotation that is already without Tim Hudson and has seen Paul Maholm land on the DL. 3. Speaking of Maholm ... Activated from the disabled list after Heyward was put on it, Maholm started off strong in his first action since July 20. Through the first four innings Maholm had allowed just one hit -- Matt Holliday's leadoff double in the fourth -- and four base runners in all. Plus, he was given a 2-1 lead off Justin Upton's 24th home run of the year. But then Maholm gave up a two-out double in the fifth inning. Then another. And another. Five of the last seven batters Maholm faced reached as he went 5 13 innings, yielding five runs and five hits with four strikeouts and three walks. It was also Maholm's fourth straight start without a win and the sixth in eight outings. With the possibility that Beachy -- depending on that meeting with Dr. Andrews -- will miss more starts, Maholm could become that much more important in Atlanta's plans for the remainder of the regular season, and potentially beyond. The Braves would obviously like him to be the pitcher who didn't allow an earned run in any of his first three starts this season, but with a 5.78 ERA, 1.57 WHIP and 3-6 record since May 28, it's clear Maholm is still trying to recapture whatever he tapped into back in April.
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